The Shang Dynasty is the earliest Chinese dynasty for which we have solid archeological evidence, including the oldest surviving examples of Chinese writing.
Excavations at the ancient Shang capital of Anyang, occupied from roughly 1250 to 1050 B.C., have unearthed fascinating details of daily life in this Bronze Age civilization, from bustling bronze workshops where artisans designed and cast elaborate ceremonial vessels, to royal tombs packed with human sacrifices.
Here are seven objects from the Shang Dynasty that shed light on a 3,200-year-old civilization at its peak.
1. Oracle Bones
Oracle bones from Anyang, made from cow scapulas and turtle shells, contain the earliest known examples of Chinese writing. Writing in China likely predated the examples found at Anyang. Everyday writing was done on bamboo tablets, but that material doesn’t survive in the archeological record in the region of north China where Anyang is located, says Kyle Steinke, a research curator with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art.
“Oracle bones are a really important part of how Anyang [the ancient Shang capital] was discovered,” says Steinke, “and they form a very large corpus of the writing that survives.”
For centuries, local farmers in Anyang dug up mysterious bone fragments in their fields inscribed with ancient characters, but they sold the bones to be ground up by apothecaries and used in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
In 1899 it was discovered that these markings were actually a form of ancient Chinese writing. In the 1920s and '30s, Chinese archeologists investigating the source of these oracle bones at Anyang, discovered rammed earth foundations indicating a once-grand palace complex dating to the Bronze Age.
Oracle bones were used in ancient Chinese divination rituals, explains Steinke, who helped curate Anyang: China’s Ancient City of Kings, an exhibit at the National Museum of Asian Art.
“The divinations follow a formula—they identify the date and ask a particular question,” says Steinke. “The questions cover a wide range of topics: the outcome of battles, the upcoming harvest, weather predictions, but also more personal issues like the outcome of a toothache.”
The oracle bones presented two outcomes, one auspicious and one inauspicious, then the diviner applied heat to crack the bone or shell. The mark left by the crack indicated whether good or bad fortune awaited.
Some of these ancient oracle bones contained the names of Shang kings and consorts, including the legendary Fu Hao, the queen consort of Emperor Wu Ding, who was a feared general in her own right.
One turtle-shell oracle bone (featured in an interactive 3D exhibit from the Smithsonian) recorded a divination made for the pregnant queen: On jiashen [the twenty-first day] a crack was made; Nan [the diviner] tested: “Fu Hao’s delivery will be blessed.”
Which games can earn you Bitcoin?
Five years into the dig at Anyang, archeologists made a monumental discovery—an underground complex of royal tombs belonging to the Shang kings.
“There were these enormous cruciform tombs with ramps down to a central rectangular chamber where a timber coffin was placed,” says Steinke. “And on the ramps descending into the tombs were rows and rows of beheaded skeletons.”
Analysis of the bones reveals that these sacrificial victims had a diet different from that of the local population, which suggests that were mostly likely foreigners, probably enemy captives taken prisoner in battle. Royal tombs also included intact skeletons of Shang servants buried with their king or queen, a separate mode of human sacrifice.
“When there’s so much human sacrifice, ceremonial weapons would have clearly been extremely important,” says Steinke. “They would have publicly displayed the martial prowess and status of the Shang elite.”
Shang-era bronze was cast in high-temperature foundries, making some of the heaviest and highest-quality bronze in the ancient world. The Smithsonian collection includes several large, inscribed ax blades that likely served a ceremonial or ritual purpose, including as an executioner’s weapon.
3. Ritual Vessels
Most of Anyang’s royal tombs were looted in antiquity, possibly by the Zhou who toppled the Shang Dynasty sometime in the middle of the 11th century. But in 1976, archeologists made another remarkable discovery at Anyang—the untouched tomb of Fu Hao, the famed female general of the late Shang period.
The wealth of artifacts packed into Fu Hao’s tomb was “staggering,” says Steinke, including more than two metric tons of ritual bronze vessels, the “hallmark objects of Shang elite material culture.”
These ornately decorated bronze vessels were part of ancient Chinese “banqueting” rituals in which food and drink were offered to venerated ancestors and other spirits.
“In the Shang period, the two most important types of vessels were a tripod vessel for heating wine and a taller goblet, which could be used for libation offerings,” says Steinke. “These rituals were so overwhelmingly important that even in a humble tomb, you would see pottery versions of these vessels.”
These heavy bronze pots and goblets were often decorated with an animal-mask motif known as a taotie. Although the exact meaning of the taotie design isn’t known, Steinke says animal eyes were often used to draw the viewer’s attention, and in Shang art they’re surrounded by geometric horns, jaws and fangs.
Production of so much high-quality bronzework requires large-scale mining, state-sponsored factories and expertly trained artisans. According to Keith Wilson, curator of ancient Chinese art at the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art, ceramicists would have fashioned the molds that would then be used to cast the bronze.
“Given the level of technical knowledge that would have been required in this almost industrial, highly organized method of production, that knowledge may well have been passed down through family lines as hereditary positions,” says Wilson.
4. Bone Hairpin
In the tomb of Lady Fu Hao, among the ornate bronze bowls inscribed with her royal name, were more personal objects, including a collection of decorative hairpins carved from animal bone.
“Shang art doesn’t depict humans as subject matter very much, so we don’t know that much about hair styles during the period or what people looked like in Anyang,” says Steinke, “but we know that people were buried with objects of personal adornment, including hairpins, jade pendants and textiles. Clearly, Fu Hao was buried with objects that were intended for the afterlife.”
Bone carving appears to have been a big industry in Anyang, where Wilson says archeologists have found “huge amounts” of bovine bones and skeletons along with 40 tons of bone debris from a bone carving factory.
“The scale of production may be related to the Shang diet, which seems to have been surprisingly beef heavy,” says Wilson. “We think of ancient people as subsisting on grass, but these people were eating steaks.”
Both chariots and horses first arrived in China during the Shang period around 1200 B.C., likely introduced by people living on the vast steppes of Inner Asia and Mongolia. The Shang elite quickly adopted both the horse and chariot, and their importance is reflected in elite tombs at Anyang, where dozens of chariots were buried along with their horses and drivers.
The Shang-era chariots were made from wood, which rotted away over time. But incredibly, archeologists were able to painstakingly excavate the soil from around the rotted wood, leaving a three-dimensional model of the chariots made entirely of dirt. The exhumed chariots can be seen today at the Yin Xu Ruins in Anyang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Since chariots were new to China, it’s unlikely they were used extensively in warfare, but rather as transport for generals and other elite fighters, or for royal hunting parties. Chariots may not have been “everyday” items, but they would have been visible in public spectacles organized by the Shang kings.
The Smithsonian exhibit includes some handsome bronze rein guides used by Shang charioteers. Steinke points out that decorations on some of the rein guides aren’t traditional Shang motifs, but suns and other geometric designs from ancient Chinese steppe culture, a sign that the horse drivers and handlers may have involved foreign personnel.
Bells were everywhere in Bronze Age China, from tiny bells strung to the collars of dogs to massive bronze bells that were forerunners of a famous ancient Chinese musical instrument.
Wilson believes that some of the earliest and smallest bronze bells in China were originally made for dogs and horses, to keep track of pets and property. In Anyang, these tiny bells were found in companion burials of dogs underneath the coffins of their owners.
Larger hand bells from the Shang period were clapperless, meaning they were held upright and struck with a mallet. Steinke thinks they were used for signaling as well as simple musical instruments.
During the Zhou Dynasty that followed the Shang, bell-making technology flourished and artisans figured out how to cast large bronze bells tuned to play multiple, precise notes. By the 5th-century B.C. Chinese courts were displaying their sophistication and power with an instrument called the bianzhong, which, in the case of one extraordinary ruler, consisted of 64 tuned bronze bells (some weighing 400 lbs) suspended from wooden frames.
7. Ancestor Tablets
These exquisitely carved jade objects were recovered from tombs at Anyang and other earlier Bronze Age cities in China, but archeologists are still unsure of their exact function. Jade was one of the most prized media for jewelry and ritual objects. The jade used in Shang-era China was nephrite jade, which has a subtler green color than “imperial green” jadeite.
Some of these mysterious handle-shaped objects were inscribed with the names of ancestors, so archeologists initially labeled them ancestor tablets. But Steinke and Wilson don’t believe they were used like ancestor tablets in later times, as part of home altars venerating the dead.
Instead, there are clues that these ancestor tablets were used in banqueting rituals.
“The best interpretation of how these Shang ‘ancestor tablets’ were used is that they were the handle portion of an implement that was placed in bronze goblets which were filled with a spiced alcoholic beverage, and used as part of some kind of libation ritual directed to the ancestors,” says Steinke.
Wilson points out that with nearly all of the ancestor tablets recovered from tombs, one end of the handle is unfinished.
“That’s led people to speculate that they may have been part of a larger assembly involving organic materials that have since perished,” says Wilson. “All we have is a handle part of a larger assembled object. That really adds to the mystery.”